Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution is both an important and thought-provoking look at the rising visibility of veiling amongst Muslim women. What lies within is a history of the veil and it’s political meanings from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Ahmed consciously confronts some of her own preconceptions about what this phenomenon means, how wearing hijab rose to prominence amongst Muslim women in mid-century Egypt, and the ways in which this movement traveled and developed in the United States.
The question of what Muslim women’s veiling means in America is a highly politicized, often antagonistic debate on television and in the public sphere. Provocative coverage has appeared innumerable times, including a NPR feature as well as a New York Times piece earlier this year. Altmuslimah has also published a number of articles, including “The politics of fashion,” and a series about women who have chosen to take off the veil (1,2). More recent journalistic and academic discussions have certainly been more nuanced and multifaceted than they previously were.
Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution is both an important and thought-provoking look at the rising visibility of veiling amongst Muslim women. What lies within is a history of the veil and its political meanings from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Ahmed consciously confronts some of her own preconceptions about what this phenomenon means, how wearing hijab rose to prominence amongst Muslim women in mid-century Egypt, and the ways in which this movement traveled and developed in the United States.
Instead of finding a history of modern veiling that reconciled with her previous thought, Leila Ahmed readily admits complicating her view upon undertaking research for this book.
…as I followed how Islamism was evolving in America in our times, and in particular the new directions in which Islamist-influenced women appear to be taking Islam, I would find myself gathering evidence…that would lead me to conclusions which would fundamentally challenge and even reverse my initial expectations.
Ahmed writes about how veiling in Egypt was a marginalized practiced into the 1950s and 60s. This “Age with No Veiling” began to reverse after and accelerate in the other direction after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Perceived as the failure of the project of secular Arab nationalism, the Muslim Brotherhood in particular advocated a program of religious awakening that including veiling practices for women.
Women’s increased veiling was roundly critiqued by many of the Egyptian intelligentsia and domestic and Western feminists. At the same time, U.S.-based researchers like Fadwa El Guindi and John Alden Williams concluded that this “represented, above all, a women’s movement; a movement that both favored and advanced women’s interests.” In Ahmed’s analysis, the veil was a political tool used across the spectrum, to both advocate for militant visions of political Islam as well as widening women’s rights.
The section of Ahmed’s book about how this dynamic of gender and religion came to the U.S. is particularly clear and refreshingly non-antagonistic. The founders of major American Muslim organizations like the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) were activists influenced by movement like the Brotherhood and Saudi-influenced Islamic thought. Da’wa, or propagation of the Islamic faith was an important item on their agenda through the 1970s, but it differed dramatically from more traditionalist modes of interpretation. “The Islam they taught and inculcated was, to be sure, their own committed, activist, and deeply modern understanding of Islam.” This view concluded that anyone could rationally apprehend a Muslim way of life as prescribed by the Qur’an and prophetic tradition.
ISNA and other groups had a very unequivocal stance on the role and status of women’s hijab at conventions, Islamic schools and seminars. Into the present, “they typical refer to the hijab as the “religiously mandated covering for Muslim women,” and in their publications—magazines, pamphlets, books—women invariably are shown wearing hijab.” American Muslim political and community organizations that tied together women’s Islamic identity and hijab influenced a large number of non-activist American Muslims with their message, including immigrants from many countries as well as the African-American Muslim community. The result of all this is succinctly summarized by Ahmed. “Thus in the mid- to late 1990s, as a new generation of American Muslims schooled in such schools and attending mosques began to come of age, the numbers of young women in hijab seemed suddenly to multiply.” Many in the Muslim community would relate easily to how this time was characterized by a sense of generational tension between women about whether to wear the veil and what it meant for their religious identity.
Given the scope of her work, Ahmed works rapidly through the debates about the Muslims women’s status in the post-9/11 backlash. Rather than get mired in the polemics that characterize much of the media debate since that time, Ahmed argues that overarching statements about women in Islam “are relics that today are grounded in no contemporary reality, and their substance seems to be now entirely chimerical, rhetorical, and political.” This is certainly one of the most incisive comments on the overgeneralizing about Muslim women that has been published in a recent work.
Leila Ahmed’s history of what she terms “The New Veil” is actually a more wide-reaching discussion of women’s movements in contemporary Islam in America. Undoubtedly difficult to summarize in one text, A Quiet Revolution is an expression of just how much social activism and religious discussion by and about Muslim women has taken place over the last sixty years. Ahmed concludes that “the era we are in today seems to be the one that most directly parallels and resembles…the era of extraordinarily dynamic activism and cultural and intellectual productivity which American feminism more broadly—Christian, Jewish, secular, and to some extent Muslim—underwent when second wave feminism vigorously emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.” Given the rise of so many American Muslim women’s groups in both the progressive and conservative mold over the last decade, I am inclined to agree with her.
Abbas Jaffer is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.